What is transhumanism? Simply put, it is a movement whose aim is to use technology to fundamentally change the human condition, to improve our bodies and minds to the point where we become something other, and better, than the animals we are. It’s a philosophy that, depending on how you look at it, can seem hopeful, or terrifying, or absurd. In To Be a Machine, Mark O’Connell presents us with the first full-length exploration of transhumanism: its philosophical and scientific roots, its key players and possible futures. From charismatic techies seeking to enhance the body to immortalists who believe in the possibility of ‘solving’ death; from computer programmers quietly redesigning the world to vast competitive robotics conventions; To Be a Machine is an Adventure in Wonderland for our time.
This is a fun read, it asks a lot of hard questions, goes out and talks to those on the real bleeding edge of these ideas and technologies, but in a readable and enjoyable manner. O’Connell really does go on a journey, both literally and metaphorically to meet people who make him question his own values, and at times also his own personal safety too. He goes on tour during the 2016 Presidential elections in a coffin shaped 1978 Blue Bird Wanderlodge called the Immortality Bus with Zoltan Istvan (his real name?) to deliver a Transhumanist Bill of Rights to the Rotunda in DC. At times it is uncertain if the bus will even make it there. We are definitely in the territory of Louie Theroux channeling everyone’s inner Hunter S Thompson. However unlike many books that simply want to be gonzo for the sake of it, this is an intelligent and thoughtful look at the wild and edgy world of transhumanism, futurism, AI, the Singularity and many more interesting concepts. O’Connell does a good job of attempting to analyse which are actually possible, probable or just plain insane.
He goes and visits many of the thought leaders in their respective environments, which often illustrates that these days, if you can create a compelling idea, ie pitch. Then you have a more than decent chance of some cashed out tech entrepreneur giving you a few thousand or even million dollars to develop your idea further. It is a big challenge these days to decipher between techno-solutionist paeans to the concept that we can solve every problem and working out what are the actual limits are. Maybe only tax is inevitable, and perhaps death isn’t? Perhaps we can reach escape velocity in terms of life expectancy? In an almost perfect but unintentional coda to the book O’Connell then has his own personal health issue which does make him contemplate the limits of our own ‘hardware’ and that wouldn’t it be great if our minds could transcend the limits of our physical bodies. This is an enjoyable, thoughtful, provocative read, it doesn’t suggest that it knows all the answers, but these are definitely topics that we need to be thinking about, long before the solutions are ever achieved.